Skip to main content

Full text of "The unknowable : The Herbert Spencer lecture delivered at Oxford, 24 October, 1923"

See other formats



















Formerly Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University 

Price Two Shillings net 









Formerly Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University 




Oxford University Press 

London Edinburgh Glasgow Copenhagen 

Neiv Tork Toronto Melbourne Cape Tonun 

Bombay Calcutta Madras Shanghai 
Humphrey Milford Publisher to the University 

Printed in England 


Your kind invitation to deliver the Herbert Spencer 
Lecture of this year, apart from the honour and pleasure 
it brings me, enables me to perform a small act of piety. 
On the whole, with qualifications which will appear 
presently, I belong to Herbert Spencer's camp ; and 
I am glad of so favourable an opportunity to offer a grain 
of propitiatory incense to his shade, which I feel to 
be wandering in our midst somewhat reproachfully. 
Fashion has completely deserted him, and the course of 
evolution in which he trusted has not taken his hints. 
Even where some philosophy of evolution is still in 
vogue, it is not his philosophy, but perhaps that of 
Hegel or Bergson, who conceive evolution as imposed 
on nature by some magic or dialectical force, contrary to 
an alleged helplessness in matter. Such devices were 
far removed from the innocence of Herbert Spencer, 
who dutifully gathered reports from every quarter and 
let them settle as they would in the broad levels of his 
system, as in geological strata ; whence that Homeric 
sweep with which he pictures progress and decay, not 
in aversion from the severities of natural existence, but 
as the mechanical sediment of the tides of matter and 
motion, perpetually surging. Of course this epic move- 
ment, as Spencer describes it, is but a human perspective ; 
he instinctively imposes his grandiloquent rhythms on 
things as he does his ponderous Latin vocabulary, or as 
Empedocles or Lucretius imposed their hexameters ; 
but that is the case with every human system ; it is and 

2787 A 2 


can be nothing but human discourse. Science and 
philosophy cast a net of words into the sea of being, 
happy in the end if they draw anything out besides 
the net itself, with some holes in it. The meshes of 
Spencer's net were not subtle ; a thousand amiable 
human things slipped through them like water, and 
compared with the studied entanglements of more 
critical systems, his seem scandalously coarse and wide : 
yet they caught the big fish. When I rub my eyes and 
look at things candidly, it seems evident to me that this 
world is the sort of world described by Herbert Spencer, 
not the sort of world described by Hegel or Bergson. 
At heart these finer philosophers, like Plato, are not 
seeking to describe the world of our daily plodding and 
commerce, but to supply a visionary interpretation of it, 
a refuge from it in some contrasted spiritual assurance, 
where the sharp facts vanish into a clarified drama or 
a pleasant trance. Far be it from me to deride the 
imagination, poetic or dialectical ; but after all it is a great 
advantage for a system of philosophy to be substantially 

In political speculation, too, the times have turned 
their back on Herbert Spencer. Everything he saw 
waxing is now visibly waning: liberalism, individualism, 
faith in science, complacency at recent progress, assurance 
of further progress to come. Doubtless it is fortunate 
for those who are not philosophers to share unreservedly 
the spirit of their age. It must be exhilarating to stand 
on the hill-tops and point the way to future generations, 
when you are confident that future generations must 
anyhow take that road. Such prophets have their 
reward. They have seemed leaders in their day, they 
remain its representatives, and hereafter they may prove 
a landmark to the historian or a find for the antiquary. 


Time also has its revenges, and after an honest man has 
been laughed at for a century or two as a simpleton or 
a scholastic, his turn may come round again, and he 
may find keen advocates and young defenders. But 
frankly, if in some respects Herbert Spencer's views 
have so soon grown obsolete, I think he deserved his 
fate. iA philosopher should not be subject to the mood 
of the age in which he happens to be born, l; When 
a man swims to eminence and to joyous convTction on 
the crest of that wave, he must expect to be left high 
and dry at the ebb-tide. A believer in evolution is 
indeed justified in assuming that the latest view and the 
latest practice are the best so far ; but in consistency he 
must admit that the next view and subsequent practice 
will be better still ; so that his real faith is pinned by 
anticipation on an ultimate view and an ultimate practice, 
in which evolution will reach its goal. Evolution, in the 
proper sense of this word, is not a mere flux expected 
to be endless ; evolution must have a goal, it must un- 
fold a germ in a determinate direction towards an 
implicit ideal ; otherwise there would be no progress 
involved, no means of distinguishing changes for the 
better from changes for the worse. I think it was 
a merit in Spencer to admit that evolution would cul- 
minate in a state from which any deviation would be 
decay ; and he not only admitted such a goal in the 
abstract, but conceived it clearly. The goal was vital 
equiHbrium, the adjustment and adaptation of living 
beings to their environment, or of their environment to 
them. The end of progress was harmony, that celestial 
harmony spoken of by a very different philosopher, 
which ran through all the gamut of the worlds, the 
diapason ending full, not exactly in man, but in any and 
every creature that might achieve a perfect harmony in 


nature. This confirms what I was saying just now 
about a system of philosophy — this philosophy of 
evolution, for instance — being but a human perspective. 
For the reindeer or the polar bear, evolution culminated 
in the glacial period ; it culminated in the cities ot 
Greece for one sort of man ; it will culminate in other 
perfections, if there is plasticity enough in living 
creatures to adapt them to their conditions, before these 
conditions have passed away. Evolution, for any ob- 
server, will mean that strain in the total movement ot 
nature which has ministered to the formation of his 
spirit, and to its full expression. 

It is not, however, as a philosopher of evolution or 
as a political prophet that I w^ish to consider Herbert 
Spencer. I should like to confine myself, if it were 
possible, to one point in his system, not especially 
characteristic of his age nor of ours, a point in which 
he seems to me to have been a true philosopher such as 
any age might produce ; for if nature has made a man 
observant, intelligent, and speculative, the times cannot 
prevent him from being so. I refer to his belief in a 
substance which by its secret operation, in infinite modes, 
kindles experience, so that all phenomena as they appear 
and all minds observing these appearances are secon- 
dary facts and not, as is often alleged, the fundamental 
or only realities. On the contrary, any experience is 
incidental to animal fife and animal passions, which in 
turn are incidental to the general flux of substance in the 
world. Appearances and feelings and consciousness 
itself are in their nature desultory and unsubstantial, yet 
not groundless nor altogether mad, because substance 
creates and sustains them by its steady rhythms, so that 
they are truly expressive and, when inteUigence arises, 
may become terms and symbols in true knowledge. 


This is of course no new doctrine, but as old as the 
hills. It is an opinion which any man, if not otherwise 
prejudiced or indoctrinated, might well come to by 
himself. It was embraced by Spencer as a matter of 
course, and held perhaps all the more resolutely because 
he was not too respectful of academic tradition. Had 
he been expert in metaphysics and educated at a univer- 
sity, he might have missed the obvious. 

Unfortunately, in wishing to pick out from Spencer's 
system this one ancient and familiar behef, and to defend 
it, I am arrested at once by an untoward circumstance. 
Herbert Spencer called this substance beneath all 
appearances the Unknowable. This negative appella- 
tion is evidently drawn from a critical and subjective 
philosophy, such as Spencer's was not. It belongs to 
the vocabulary of disappointment ; it is a romantic word. 
It transports us far from the region of eager inquiry, 
experiment, statistics, miscellaneous information, and 
scientific enlightenment in which Spencer's other 
theories had bloomed. Why this anomaly ? Why any 
metaphysical preface at all to a work of straightforward 
natural philosophy ? 

I think the reason was that Spencer, not being by 
nature a logician, bowed in logic to casual authorities, 
and relied too much, in this subject too, on the fashion 
of the hour. He supposed, as some do to-day, that the 
latest logic was the last. Dean Mansel, Sir William 
Hamilton, and Kant would never be superseded. He 
hardly considered the atmosphere, the implications, or 
the contradictions of the doctrines he quoted from those 
worthies ; he appealed to them on one point, in order to 
discredit all their other arguments. Metaphysics should 
be proved, out of the mouths of the metaphysicians 
themselves, to be incompetent to revise his scientific 


speculations, or to refute his conclusions. He hardly 
cared, therefore, if the language of his metaphysical 
preface was that of his natural enemies, and perverse 
essentially : that fact seemed almost an advantage since 
it locked the gates against those enemies with their own 

Yet words are weapons, and it is dangerous in specu- 
lation, as in politics, to borrow them from the arsenal of 
the enemy. In consenting to call substance unknowable, 
Spencer exposed himself to the derisive question how, 
if substance was unknowable, he ever came to know ot 
its existence. Indeed, if the epithet were taken strictly, 
it would positively contradict and abolish behef in that 
tremendous reality on which he bestowed it, partly 
perhaps in reverence, and partly in haste to be done 
with reverence and to come to business. But Spencer 
did not take the epithet strictly, since he spoke of modes 
of the unknowable and regarded phenomena everywhere 
as its manifestations ; and if we take the word know- 
ledge in its natural sense (of which I shall speak pre- 
sently) it is hard to see how anything could be better 
revealed than by being manifested everywhere. The 
fact is that relative and oblique designations, such as the 
unknowable or the unconscious, cannot be taken strictly : 
they cannot be intended to describe anything in its 
proper nature, but only in its accidental relation to 
something else— to a would-be knower who is unable to 
know it, or to an ulterior sensibility which as yet has not 
arisen. Nothing can be intrinsically unknowable ; for 
if any one was tempted to imagine a substance such that 
it should antecedently defy description, inasmuch as 
that substance had no assignable character, he would be 
attributing existence to a nonentity. It would evidently 
make no difference in the universe whether a thing 


without any character were added to it or were taken 
away. If substance is to exist, it must have a character 
distinguishing it from nothing, and also from everything 
else. In saying this I do not mean to ignore those 
renowned philosophers who have maintained that the 
entire essence of substance is pure Being : I can easily 
conceive that in some other world pure Being should 
be all in all. Pure Being is itself a particular essence, 
the simplest essence of all, clearly distinguishable, both 
in definition and in experience, from every other essence, 
and loudly contrary to nothing, with which Hegel 
would identify it, not (I think) honestly ; and if pure 
Being by chance were the essence of substance, sub- 
stance would be so far from unknowable that it would 
be thoroughly well known, and we should always carry 
with us, as Spinoza observes, an adequate idea of it. 
That the substance of this world has a far more 
elaborate nature I believe can be easily proved ; but 
I cannot enter here into that argument. It is easy to 
conceive, however, that the intrinsic nature of substance 
may be very recondite and very rich, so that the human 
mind has no occasion and no capacity to describe it 
adequately— and this perhaps[comes nearer to Spencer's 
intention in calling it unknowable. In this sense not 
only God but the remoter parts of space and time, and 
probably the depths of matter, would be unknowable to 
man. Even then, however, the intrinsic nature of sub- 
stance could offer no resistance to being discovered, if 
any one had the means and the wit to do so ; and if 
substance remains largely unknown to mankind, the 
reason will not be any recalcitrancy on its part, but 
rather a casual coincidence in ourselves of curiosity with 
blindness, so that we earnestly desire to search the 
depths of substance, but cannot. 
2787 A 3 


In this measure the emotion suggested by the term 
unknowable is a legitimate emotion. It expresses an 
integral part of the tragedy involved in being finite and 
mortal — perhaps in being a mind or spirit at all. Poets 
and philosophers sometimes talk as if life were an 
entertainment, a feast of ordered sensations ; but the 
poets, if not the philosophers, know too well in their 
hearts that life is no such thing : it is a predicament. 
We are caught in it ; it is something compulsory, urgent, 
.dangerous, and tempting. We are surrounded by enor- 
mous, mysterious, only half-friendly forces. This is our 
experience in the dilemmas of conduct, in religion, in 
science, and in the arts; so that the usual sequel to 
agnosticism, when impatient people deny that the un- 
known exists, far from being a rational simplification, is 
a piece of arrant folly : one of those false exits in the 
comedy of thought which, though dramatic, are igno- 
minious, because the mind must revert from them to the 
beginning of the scene, and play it over again on some 
other principle. All the reasons that originally sug- 
gested the belief in substance remain unimpaired, and 
suggest the same belief again and again. We are not 
less dependent than our forefathers on food, on circum- 
stances, on our own bodies ; the incubus of the not- 
ourselves is not lifted from us ; or if in some respects 
we have acquired a greater dominion over nature, this 
only adds positive knowledge of substance to the dumb 
sense we had before of its environing presence. How 
far this understanding of substance shall go depends on 
the endowment of the proposed knower, and on the 
distance, scale, and connexions of the things he is 
attempting to describe. How far knowledge is possible, 
therefore, can never be determined without first know- 
ing the circumstances ; and the very notion of knowledge 


— by which I do not mean mere feehng or consciousness, 
but the cognizance which one existence can take of 
another— is a notion that never could be framed without 
confident experience of sundry objects known and of 
persons able to know them. 

In saying this I am not merely expressing my own 
view of the matter; I am thinking of the agnosticism 
prevalent in Spencer's generation. It was no general 
scepticism ; it did not, even in Kant, challenge the possi- 
bility of knowledge on account of the audacious claim 
which all transitive or informing knowledge puts forth 
in professing to report and describe something absent. 
On the contrary, such transitive and informing know- 
ledge was still assumed to exist ; the essential miracle 
of it was not denied, because it was not noticed. Every- 
body was assumed to know his own past, not merely to 
imagine it ; everybody was assumed to know, not merely 
^^ to imagine, the conscious existence of others, and the 
^ laws and phenomena of nature ad infinitum. But all 
^ these known facts, however remote and unobservable, 
were phenomena that had appeared, or might have 
appeared, to some human mind. What was condemned 
never to be known was only the environment of this 
experience, which experience had always supposed it 
possessed and observed, and which had been called 
matter, God, or the natural world. Yet the existence of 
these objects was not denied : had there really been no 
God, no matter, and no natural world, I do not see how 
incapacity to discover them could have been called 
agnosticism. The agnostic was haunted by ghosts of 
substance, filling his whole experience with a sense 
of discomfort, ignorance, and defeat. Those substances 
were real but elusive ; and though he never saw them, 
the agnostic remembered only too well the tales once 


told concerning them, and secretly desired to have 
assurance of their truth; only he thought such assur- 
ance was eternally denied him by his psychological 
constitution. As speech has been called a means ot 
concealing thought, so knowledge was a screen cutting 
off reality. Evidently this agnosticism, besides assum- 
ing true knowledge of much absent experience, pre- 
supposed accurate knowledge of the human mind and 
its categories, conceived to be unalterable ; and it also 
presupposed a definition of that veiled reality definite 
enough to assure us that no definition of it would ever 
be given. 

So much sure knowledge at home had a tendency to 
console the agnostic for his ignorance abroad. If meta- 
physics had closed its doors upon him, science was 
inviting him to a feast. Science was then believed to 
be so clear and unquestionable, and practically so bene- 
ficent, that human life would presently be filled to the 
brim with busy knowledge, busy wealth, and busy 
happiness. Mankind being thus happily occupied, hke 
the busy bee, would have no reason to regret its ignor- 
ance of what did not concern it. Yet this contentment 
in agnosticism, so wise in its humility and so natural in 
an age of material progress, is fatal sooner or later to 
agnosticism itself. If you are not a wistful and distressed 
agnostic, you will forget ere long that you are an agnos- 
tic at all. Why should you believe in those ghosts of 
substance, if you never see them ? There were once, 
or there seemed to be, substantial and formidable 
realities which everybody was sure of — God, matter, the 
natural world ; but after literary psychology had proved 
that you could know nothing but your own ideas, and 
you found that, in spite of your increduhty, these ideas 
continued to flow as pleasantly as ever, what reason 


could you have to imagine the existence of anything 
else ? Thus the agnostic who has lost his sense of 
bereavement will readily revert to dogmatism. He will 
relapse into the innocent habit of mind which regards 
what we see as existing substantially, and what we do 
not see as nothing. 

You will not expect me, in these few minutes, to dis- 
cuss the logic of idealism, but it is interesting to note 
how two important phases of this logic reappear in 
Spencer. One phase is the Socratic doctrine that 
knowledge is recognition. To know a thing, according 
to this view, is to be able to say what it is ; in other 
words, to name and to classify it. The logical conclu- 
sion from this was drawn by Plato. He saw that the 
only true objects of knowledge were the types of being 
which we recognized things to possess. These types 
he called Ideas ; earthly and transitory things could be 
understood only in so far as one or another of these 
Ideas was illustrated in them, or at least suggested by 
them in their confusion and imperfection. There is 
a curious approximation to this view in the Spencerian 
cosmology, where various principles of evolution are 
traced through all departments of nature, and repre- 
sented as a sort of framework of eternal necessity on 
which the frail web of phenomena is stretched, and must 
be stretched in all future time. Law is the modern 
equivalent for the Ideas of Plato : there is no reason, 
save the plastic habit of the Hellenic imagination, why 
forms of motion or of relation should not have been 
counted amongst Platonic Ideas as honourably as the 
forms of animals or the categories of language. The 
radical divergence of modern rationalism from that ol 
antiquity comes at another point. The modern is an 
agnostic in his idealism ; he is subjective ; he cannot 


believe that the laws that hold the world together are 
its true substance. They seem to him evidently fig- 
ments of the mind, and he is driven to put substance in 
some nearer plane, a plane which on Socratic principles 
would be unknowable, since only laws or types of being 
can be defined in thought. 

The other phase of idealistic logic which enters into 
Spencer's agnosticism is sensualism, or the doctrine that 
the only object of knowledge is the datum of sense. It 
is usual to identify this datum of sense, which is properly 
a visionary essence, with the sensation which reveals it, 
a sensation which is an event in somebody's personal 
experience and an historical fact. Sensations will then 
seem to be the substantial facts ; for although they will 
remain unknowable in the sense of being indefinable, 
they will be felt and found, each at its own time ; and 
this is the empirical criterion of reality and knowledge. 
But it is not clear how one sensation can know another, 
or in what medium, if sensations are the only reality, 
they can arise or can be related ; and a bottomless abyss 
of scepticism opens before any one who takes the doctrine 
seriously that nothing can exist except sensations, each 
knowing itself only. Spencer was spared these per- 
plexities by his robust faith in substance. Deeply 
influenced as he was by his idealistic friends, he could 
not forget that sensations had roots. They expressed 
bodily states, and effects of the environment. But as 
only laws or Platonic types could be defined, and only 
sensations could be felt, and as feeling and defining were 
the sole ways of knowing admitted by the two schools 
of idealistic logic, Spencer was confirmed in his con- 
viction that only appearances were knowable. To be 
known in either of those ways is incongruous with 
the nature of substance. This fact does not militate 


against its existence ; it militates against the illusion that 
anything existent can be known in either of those ways. 
What jurisdiction can any feeling have, or any logic, 
over what shall arise or not arise in the universe? 
Even when we assert that the self-contradictory cannot 
exist, I suppose what we mean, if we are reasonable, is 
that some notion of ours, which contradicts itseh, cannot 
be the true or complete description of the object we 
mean to describe by it. But often the objects to which 
we attempt to apply such notions are the things most 
^indubitably existing in the world, such for instance as 
motion, and as this very fact of knowledge which we are 
now trying to understand. Motion and knowledge are 
facts perfectly notorious and familiar, although several 
great philosophers deny them to be possible, because 
the definitions they have given of them are self-contra- 
dictory. It is nothing against the existence of such 
things that they should be inexpressible in the terms ot 
a particular logic, or unknowable to a stone. The lack 
of possible communication between two creatures is not 
necessarily a reproach to either. Even when they are 
sensitive, and are intelligent enough to take their 
sensations for signs of an external agent, the connexion 
may be too slight, or the scale too different, tor mutual 
knowledge to be possible or important. But when it is 
important it is usually possible. We need but to sharpen 
our wits, and shake our minds loose from prejudice, 
trying new categories, until we come nearer to the heart 
of those substantial dynamic objects which confront us 
in action. This approach need not be by a miraculous 
divination of their essence, although when the object 
recognized is a mind like our own, such literal divination 
is not impossible. Usually, however, the approach is 
by refinements of adaptation, as in the moods and tenses 


of verbs, or the application of mathematics to nature ; 
there is no similarity established of a pictorial sort 
between the symbol in the fancy and the fact in the 
world, but only a methodical correspondence in some 
one direction. If, however, we find that our senses and 
our logic are obdurate and incapable of further adapta- 
tions, we may reflect that all knowledge of fact, by its 
very privilege of transcending the data, is condemned to 
be external and symbolical, and that the most plastic and 
penetrating intellect, being still an animal function, will 
never discover the whole of things, either in their extent 
or in their structure. Things will not be unknown, 
since notice will have been taken of them and their 
appearance, in some respect, will have been recorded ; 
we shall understand that there is one strain, at least, in 
their constitution and movement fitted to provoke our 
perception and to render our description applicable 
and correct. Even that intrinsic character of things, 
which remains undiscovered or inexpressible in our 
particular language, is a perfectly knowable character, 
and would be disclosed at any moment, in any particular, 
if a new observer turned up with the requisite organs, 
and a more sympathetic imagination. 

Calling substance unknowable, then, is like calling a 
drum inaudible, for the shrewd reason that what you 
hear is the sound and not the drum. It is a play on 
words, and little better than a pun. In the sense in 
which what is heard is the sound, hearing is intuition : 
in the sense in which what is heard is the drum, hearing 
is an instance of animal faith, of that sort of perception 
which includes understanding and readiness to assume 
much that is not perceived, and to act on that assump- 
tion. Certainly if nature had confined our cognitive 
powers to intuition of absolute data, and we were 


incorrigibly aesthetic idiots, substance would be un- 
knowable to us ; but in that case we should not be 
agnostics about substance, since we should have not the 
least inkling that such a thing might exist, nor the least 
notion of its nature. But mankind has always had 
ideas of matter, of God or the gods, and of a natural 
world, full of hidden processes and powers ; these 
objects, just because they existed, were necessarily 
removed from intuition ; but everybody knew the quarter 
in which they lay and the circle of experiences in which 
each of them was manifested. Everybody knew what 
he meant by believing in them, and what sort of things 
they would be if it was really on them, and not on 
something quite different, that his action was directed. 
For instance, at this moment, not being able to discard 
the rude logic of my animal ancestors, I think I find 
indications before me of the four walls of this room and 
of you sitting within them, both you and the walls being 
possessed of a substantial existence, that is, having 
existed prior to my arrival in Oxford and existing apart, 
even now, from my summary intuitions of you, vague 
symbols to me of your being and of your presence. 
Nor does the equal substantiahty which I attribute to 
you and to the walls at all imply an identity of nature 
between the two. On the contrary, 1 should be utterly 
lacking in sanity, as well as in civility, if I now turned 
my back upon you and addressed the wall ; yet on the 
hypothesis that my perceptions do not convey know- 
ledge of substance, but are intuitions of pure ideas, it 
would be equally vain to address myself to you or to 
the wall, since in either case I should be haranguing 
my own sensations. The fact that substantial, and sub- 
stantially different, realities must be posited beyond 
myself and my data, one sort amenable to persuasion 


and the other deaf, is something I assume because the 
enterprise of hfe in me at this moment demands that 
I should do so. I am pledged by my instant adventure 
and by the general art of living (which has a groundless 
ascendancy over all animals) to take for granted that 
you are sitting there, admirable in your patience and 
inscrutable in your thoughts ; and that just as in speaking 
to you I posit your substantial existence, so you in your 
turn are kindly positing mine, over and above the 
volatile sounds which you actually hear : and I am sure 
you are intelligently recognizing me and my thoughts 
very much for what we really are. 

Thus the Spencerian Unknowable is unknowable only 
to ideahsts, who identify knowledge with intuition, and, 
if they are consistent, deny the capacity of thought to 
indicate anything external, whether an event, a substance, 
or another actual thought. But these objects withdrawn 
from intuition are the objects of daily knowledge and ot 
science : and Spencer believed he knew them very well. 
The scruples that made him substitute the word un- 
knowable for the word force or the word force for the 
word matter, were the scruples of an idealist, such as 
he did not intend to be. They sprang from the habit of 
reducing things to their adventitious relation to our- 
selves, the habit of egotism ; as if the difficulty we may 
have in approaching them could constitute their intrinsic 

There was, however, a motive of quite another sort 
leading Spencer to disguise the substance of things 
under the name of the Unknowable. He wished to 
reconcile science with religion. It is easy to deride 
this pretension in one who had so little sympathy with 
religious institutions and with religious experience. 
Religion in the mass of mankind has never been a mere 


sense of mystery. It has been a positive belief, and an 
experimental effort, directed on the means of salvation. 
A prophet, conscious of some promise or warning con- 
veyed to him miraculously, cannot substitute for this 
specific faith an official assurance that science will never 
quite succeed in dissipating the mystery of things : it is 
not what he will never know that interests him, but 
what he thinks he has discovered. Genuine rehgion 
professes to have positive knowledge and to bring 
positive benefits : it is an art ; and to ask it to be satis- 
fied with knowing that no knowledge can penetrate to 
the heart of things is sheer mockery: the opposite is 
what religion instinctively asserts. Like science, religion 
is solid only in so far as by faith and art — the two wings 
of true knowledge — it can really survey human destiny 
and reveal the divine decrees on which human destiny 
depends. And yet I think that Herbert Spencer, in 
throwing somewhat contemptuously that sop to religion, 
was in fact silently reconcihng religion with science 
behind his back and without suspecting it. The sub- 
stance envisaged in science and that envisaged in 
religion have always been the same. The paths ot 
discovery are different, but, if they convey true know- 
ledge, they must ultimately converge upon the same 
facts, on the same ground of necessity in things. In 
the recognition of a universal substance far removed 
from the imagination and the will of men, yet creating 
this will and imagination at the appropriate places, and 
giving them their natural scope, there lies a quite posi- 
tive religion, and by no means a new one. Substance, 
if we admit it at all, is by definition the source of our life 
and the dispenser to us of good and evil. Respect for 
it, then, is the beginning of wisdom, and harmony with 
it is the sign of salvation. I do not mean to suggest 


that all religion is addressed to such a real and formida- 
ble object. There are strains in religion of quite another 
quality. There is, for instance, a rapturous strain, the im- 
pulse to praise, to sing, to mythologize, to escape from all 
the limitations and cares of mortahty into an ecstatic happi- 
ness. But I ask myself this question : What would ecstasy 
be but madness if it were not the voice of a substantial 
harmony with the substance of things and with its 
movement ? Though substance may be forgotten, and 
only light and music may seem to remain, it is the 
massive harmonies in substance that justify those mystic 
feehngs, if anything justifies them at all. If the spheres 
did not revolve according to law, the morning stars 
would not sing together; and the God of Aristotle 
would not think his eternal thoughts. Even enthusiasm, 
therefore, when not vapid, expresses respect for sub- 
stance and happy union with its motion. Those prosaic 
terms of Spencer's — adaptation and equilibrium — really 
express admirably the basis of the most ecstatic emotions, 
when they are healthy and deserving of a place in human 
economy. It would be a sad compHment to pay to 
religion to identify it with fatuous and ephemeral heats, 
divorced from all perception of substance and of its true 
fertility. Religion of the sober, practical, manly sort, 
Roman piety, is emphatically reverence for the nature 
of things, for the ways of substance. How far such 
manly piety may have been misled by superstition, or 
by hasty and sentimental science, so as to distort the 
laws of the world and found 2i false religion, is a question 
of fact for soberer science to examine. If a traditional 
deity proves to be a living power, if it is the whole or 
a part of the substance actually confronting us, then 
serious piety will revere that deity and meditate on its 
ways. If on the contrary the only substance that 


controls our destiny or can reward our obedience is a 
natural substance, manifested in all nature and plastic to 
common arts, then a serious piety will study the ways 
and sing the praises of this natural substance. Piety is 
on the side of belief in substance: the existence of 
substance is the basis of piety. To set up in the place 
of substance any spontaneous ideas or pert exigences of 
our own is contrary to religion : a mind that professes 
to create matter, to create truth, and to create itself is a 
Satanic mind. At least Lucifer and the ancient sceptics 
were disinterested, and disdained a world in which they 
did not believe ; but modern rebels, religious or political, 
are without asceticism ; like Doctor Faustus they are 
crammed with pretentious learning, they trust in magic 
and in their own will, covet all experience, and hanker 
for the promised land ; but they will never see it except 
in a mirage if, in contempt of substance, they merely 
command it to appear. 

There is a maxim which counsels a man lost in a wood 
to walk on steadity in any one direction, no matter which, 
lest by turning and turning in a circle he should never 
come out into the open. Spencer might have followed 
this maxim to advantage, ^and by sticking to his own 
cosmic principles he might have arrived at a theory of 
substance and of knowledge which would have been 
adequate to the facts, and potentially just also to the 
experience and logic of idealism (which are pathetically 
human), without departing at any point from the method 
of external observation or the doctrine of natural evolu- 
tion. Knowledge, whatever else it may be, is certainly 
an incident in life. If all things were dead, no one ot 
them could know another, much less itself Now of the 
nature of life Spencer had a very just, if external, con- 
ception : life is a form of adaptation, a moving equili- 


brium, an adjustment of inner to outer relations. If 
a dog winces when struck, he is aHve and has felt the 
blow ; if a fly, when you try to catch it, escapes by flight, 
it has perceived the hand descending upon it. I am far 
from wishing to maintain a behaviourist psychology, or 
to say that in such observable cases of knowledge there 
is nothing that is not observable ; on the contrary, 
I believe that every natural event has several ontological 
dimensions : it moves in the realm of matter, it is de- 
finable in the realm of truth, perhaps it flashes and burns 
for a moment in the realm of spirit, forming an actual 
feeling or thought. But the material facts, which biology 
might survey, are sufficient to determine the distribution 
of life and knowledge, as well as the distribution of all 
the other dimensions and values which the facts may 
involve. The state of our organs determines our sensa- 
tions ; our actions, or our perceptible impulses to act, 
determine our passions ; our words enact and define our 
thoughts. Knowledge in its natural basis, bearing with 
it all its spiritual accompaniments, is thus a perfectly 
ascertainable fact of natural history. It is a relation of 
living bodies to their environment, such that the acts 
and words flowing from the body fit their external 
occasions, changing in a way relevant to these occasions 
but prompted by the native impulses of those bodies. 
Apart from such external adjustments there would be no 
teUing whether the inner visions of any mind were 
knowledge or not. Intrinsically they are dream-images 
in any case ; and they would never be anything more if 
directly or indirectly, by the action which accompanies 
them, they found no point of application in the material 

The question what is knowable and what unknowable 
to any animal is accordingly easily answered by a biolo- 


gist enjoying the requisite facilities for observation : it 
an animal possesses organs capable of discriminating 
response to a determinate thing, that animal can 
know this thing : if on the contrary the presence of 
this thing in influencing the animal materially does 
not stimulate any reaction focused upon that thing — 
any turning, or visible contemplation, or defensive 
movement, or pursuit— then the thing in question is 
unknowable to that particular animal, and can never 
become an object of his thought, action, or desire. 
In the first case, when a fit reaction occurs, any 
sensuous image or any logical system which might then 
fill the mind would express that reaction ; and this 
expression would not be meaningless to the active 
animal in whom it arose ; he would instinctively under- 
stand it to be the voice of the substance confronting 
him, his opposite partner in the dance. Having an- 
nounced its presence, and provoked in its host some 
reaction of sense or fancy, that neighbour substance will 
have revealed itself in the only way in which anything 
existent and collateral can be revealed at all — by pro- 
ducing some slight disturbance, which in an active animal 
calls attention to its source ; so that the intruder acquires 
a reputation for good or ill, and a character in the social 

Human experience is filled full with such appropriate 
comments on neighbouring modes of substance, and 
with appropriate names and sketches clapped upon 
events. Amongst these signs and tokens there are some 
especially venerable symbols, those same ideas already 
mentioned of matter, of God, of the natural world, of 
various persons and passions. These venerable symbols 
are characters attributed to substance and its modes by 
the human imagination, after long experience and much 


puzzled reflection : the degree of truth and precision 
which they may possess will naturally vary, partly with 
the articulation they receive — the more articulate, the 
truer or the falser they will become— and partly with the 
range of substantive being to which they are applied. 
Intrinsically they are all poetic ideas, fictions of the 
fancy ; a fact which does not prevent them from being 
true symbolically and even literally, if they are so 
happily framed as to attribute to substance no character 
which substance does not actually possess. 

When people discuss the existence of matter or the 
existence of God, the problem does not seem to me to 
be well stated. It is as if we began to discuss the exis- 
tence of our friends. In the material locus in which 
we place the persons of our acquaintance there is un- 
doubtedly something, and not something of any sort, 
but a mode of substance with precisely the active powers 
exerted upon us from that quarter. This reality is no 
less real than ourselves, being in dynamic interplay with 
the substance of our own being. To deny the reality of 
one's friends, though possible to a determined sceptic, 
is idle and in the end dishonest ; because we can be 
sure of nothing and can believe nothing, if we do not 
allow ourselves to believe and to be sure that we are in 
contact with a substance not ourselves when we fight, 
love, or talk. This substance may be recognized and 
named without being at all comprehended ; merely the 
different instincts awakened in its presence may suffice 
to distinguish it clearly, as when a child says John, 
mother, dog. It does not follow that these names, and 
the sentiment each mutely awakens, are similar to the 
substance they indicate, or form any part of that sub- 
stance. Even the barking of the dog, not to speak of 
the dog himself, is not very like the bow-wow of the 


childish vocabulary. I see no necessity that our ideas 
of matter or of God should be truer than that ; yet they 
have substantial and unequivocal objects. If, for 
instance, in denying that persons exist, a philosopher 
like Buddha had meant that the idea we commonly form 
of persons does not rightly describe the substance at 
work in those places, he might have been more than 
iustified ; a supposed spiritual substance called the soul 
is not easily to be found there ; but he could hardly have 
maintained his negation if he had meant that there is no 
substance of any sort for which the idea of persons is 
a conventional mask. In fact Buddha himself implicitly 
believed in Karma, a principle of inheritance and con- 
tinuity which was the parent of all illusions and the 
substance of our imaginary selves. No doubt this con- 
ception of Karma, like the notion of a person, needs to 
be clarified ; but it is a splendid instrument of moral 
synthesis, and describes the operations of substance in 
one important respect, though doubtless without under- 
standing the mechanism which actually subtends human 
character and moral inheritance. 

Knowledge, then, is not knowledge of appearance, 
but appearances are knowledge of substance when they 
are taken for signs of it. The stuff and texture of know- 
ledge, its verbal and pictorial terms, are flexible and 
subject to progressive correction. Thus the notion of 
matter, of God, of a human person, may continually 
vary, and may end by shedding completely the specious 
character it had at first : as, for instance, this Buddhistic 
notion of what a person really is, namely, a moral 
heritage, is a complete denial of several grosser defini- 
tions of a human spirit; but these reformed ideas and 
new names are meant to be applicable to the same object 
formerly conceived otherwise ; for this reason they may 


be truer and better. In like manner the idea of matter 
or of God may be reformed ; it may even be reformed 
so radically that a fresh word may be thought necessary 
to designate the new conception, and the old substance 
will receive a new name ; but controversy is misguided 
if it turns on hypostatizing either idea, and asking which 
of them exists. The answer is, neither : what exists is 
the substance at work, and this substance is never an 
idea hypostatized. It is prior to all ideas and descriptions 
of it, the object that in their rivalry they are all en- 
deavouring to report truly. In its local modes, or in 
its broad relations to same human interest, it bears 
without a murmur whatsoever names any one's tongue, 
in its pathetic spontaneity, may impose upon it ; here it 
is called mother, there John, there bow-wow; in one 
broad aspect it is called matter, in another it is called 
God. When such names, in physics or in theology, are 
expanded into articulate systems, the question may arise 
whether they continue to be appropriate to the part or 
aspect of substance on which they were first bestowed : 
and this is a doubt for further study to solve, patiently 
directed upon the same object. A man may then 
honestly ask himself whether he believes in matter; 
meaning that he does not regard the conventional notion 
of matter as certainly applicable to the substance meant; 
or if he likes to startle the pious he may say he does not 
believe in God, because he may not regard the con- 
ventional notion of God, or perhaps any notion bred in 
the region of dramatic emotion, as honestly applicable to 
the substance actually operative in that sphere — say, in 
the sphere of momentous events and ultimate destiny. 
Evidently further study of momentous events, and further 
reflection on destiny, might decide this question for him, 
as further study of physics might decide the other ; but 


whether we think fit to call substance there matter, and 
substance here God, or invent other names, substance 
will remain what it is ; our appellations and ideas will 
have no power to create it where it is not, or to dislodge 
it or modify it where it is. Illusions have their own 
specious reality and physiognomy, curious as folklore is 
curious; but it is substance as it exists that is momentous, 
since it determines events, including our illusions and 
the disappointments they entail. I should be sorry to 
think for one moment that any philosopher, much less 
any religious man, could cling to his beliefs merely 
because they were his, or he liked them, or had defended 
them before. Of course every earnest mind recoils from 
self-deception and from the thought that its dearest 
feelings might go up in smoke ; of course it is singly 
devoted to discovering the facts, whatever they may be, 
and to assuming towards them a brave and becoming 

My conclusion accordingly is this : Belief in substance, 
besides being inevitable in daily life (which I think is 
the right place for philosophy), is vindicated by the 
adequacy and harmony of the view it gives us of exis- 
tence ; and the notion that substance is unknowable is 
reduced to a misunderstanding— intelligible but unfor- 
tunate — due to a confusion of knowledge with intuition. 
If by knowledge we understood an intuition containing 
no element of faith, but simply inspecting the obvious, 
then indeed all substance would be unknowable ; but 
this necessary ignorance would then extend to every 
subsisting fact assumed in science and in daily life : not 
only would matter and God disappear from the scene, 
but the whole past and future would be denied, together 
with all that flux of experience which social intercourse, 
psychology, and history presuppose. Nothing would 


then be knowable save the feeUng or image present 
at the moment to the mind ; and even this would not be 
known for a fact or event in the world, but all that would 
be known in it, or through it, would be its own specious 
nature, the idea presented or the sensation felt. To 
limit knowledge to intuition of such obvious essences is 
to deny knowledge : it is to revoke the whole transitive 
intention or significance of ideas. The knowledge that 
mankind claims and rejoices in is of quite another sort ; 
it consists in information about removed facts, intuitively 
undiscoverable. To a mortal creature, hounded by fate, 
and not merely engaged in seraphic contemplation, 
absent things are the things important to know ; it is 
they that have created us, and can now feed or entice 
us ; it is they that our moral nature hangs upon and 
looks to with respect. 

I have sometimes wondered at the value ladies set 
upon jewels: as centres of light, jewels seem rather 
trivial and monotonous. And yet there is an unmistak- 
able spell about these pebbles ; they can be taken up 
and turned over ; they can be kept ; they are faithful 
possessions; the sparkle of them, shifting from moment 
to moment, is constant from age to age. They are sub- 
stances. The same aspects of light and colour, if they 
were homeless in space, or could be spied only once and 
irrecoverably, like fireworks, would have a less com- 
fortable charm. In jewels there is the security, the 
mystery, the inexhaustible fixity proper to substance. 
After all, perhaps I can understand the fascination they 
exercise over the ladies ; it is the same that the eternal 
feminine exercises over us. Our contact with them is 
unmistakable, our contemplation of them gladly renewed, 
and pleasantly prolonged ; yet in one sense they are 
unknowable ; we cannot fathom the secret of their con- 


stancy, of their hardness, of that perpetual but uncertain 
briUiancy by which they dazzle us and hide themselves. 
These qualities of the jewel and of the eternal feminine 
are also the qualities of substance and of the world. 
The existence of this world — unless we lapse for 
a moment into an untenable scepticism — is certain, or 
at least it is unquestioningly to be assumed. Experience 
may explore it adventurously, and science may describe 
it with precision ; but after you have wandered up and 
down in it for many years, and have gathered all you 
could of its ways by report, this same world, because it 
exists substantially and is not invented, remains a foreign 
thing and a marvel to the spirit : unknowable as a drop 
of water is unknowable, or unknowable like a person